During the early days of the coronavirus pandemic in the spring of 2020, Taylor Roe found herself stranded at home. The 2019 Lake Stevens High School graduate had just had her lackluster first year with the Oklahoma State University cross country and track and field teams cut short, and there was no certainty about when her sports would start up again.
So with little else to do, Roe began training. Hard. She’d go on runs with her younger brother, Trey. She’d do runs where her parents, Jennifer and Lawrence, would pace her on their bicycles.
It all paid off with a dramatic leap in performances and a shocking second-place finish at the NCAA Division I Women’s Cross Country Championship. Her accomplishments in college cross country and track made Roe The Herald’s 2020-21 Woman of the Year in Sports.
”Honestly, I have to say that getting second at nationals was just so shocking and unexpected,” Roe said via cell phone from Stillwater, Oklahoma, where she’s begun the 2021 cross country season. “I knew I had put in the hard work, and training was going really well to that point. But I never expected it to translate like it did.”
Roe had a stellar high school distance running career, winning nine individual state titles in cross country and track. But her initial impact at the college level was minimal, peaking with a 16th-place finish at the 2019 Big 12 Cross Country Championships.
Therefore, there weren’t many expectations placed on Roe as a sophomore, especially with the fall cross country season in constant flux because of the pandemic. But Roe served notice when she took second in all three races she competed in during the fall, including the Big 12 Championships.
With cross country nationals moved to March, Roe underwent a whirlwind tour that resulted in multiple All-American honors. First, she anchored Oklahoma State to a fourth-place finish in the distance medley relay at the NCAA Division I Women’s Indoor Track and Field Championships in Fayetteville, Arkansas. Three days later, she took second at cross country nationals back in Stillwater.
“She decided it was time to be great,” Oklahoma State director of track and field and cross country Dave Smith said about Roe’s breakthrough 2020-21. “I think at the end of her freshman year she decided it was time to get rolling, and she came back with with a different attitude and a different confidence. It was less letting races happen to her and more putting her stamp on races from the start, making sure she exerted her will on the race instead of the other way around.”
That was best illustrated at cross country nationals. Despite the success in the fall and at indoor track nationals, both Roe and Smith had modest goals for cross country nationals.
“My goal was definitely to be an All-American, which is top 40,” Roe said. “Maybe I could be top 20, and on the best day of my life maybe I could crack the top 10, but that would have to be the best day ever.”
Roe had her best day and then some. She stayed back in the pack through the early stages of the race, but gradually worked her way forward and was among the leaders at the halfway point. She stayed with the lead group the rest of the way and made a strong late push to place second.
Smith said that race illustrated the biggest difference between first-year Roe and sophomore Roe: poise.
“It’s been a maturation process for Taylor and it’s been fun to watch,” Smith said. “She’s just gained confidence and perspective. Young athletes can often have anxiety, especially those who accomplish a lot at an early age, because it’s hard to live up to the image of yourself and the expectations you have for yourself. I think last year she was able to just focus on wanting to get better, run her races and let the chips fall where they may.”
From Roe’s perspective, the key to her giant leap forward was simple.
“What helped me make the jump was consistent training and consistent running,” Roe said. “Every workout was consistently putting in my best effort. Most of my workouts weren’t very good, I wasn’t killing it every single day. But I showed up every day and put in my best effort, and day after day built upon each other. It was months in the making, and I think being home with my family during COVID was a special time, being home with them and training.
“I don’t think (the key to making the jump) was anything special, I think it was just being consistent.”
Unfortunately, Roe’s 2020-21 came to a premature end, as a stress fracture in her sacrum, which was exacerbated by a fall while running a steeplechase race in April, meant her outdoor track and field season never got up to speed. But after a couple months without running she’s back to 100 percent, and on Saturday she proved it by winning the Cowboy Jamboree in Stillwater.
It’ll be tough for Roe to top what she accomplished in 2020-21, but she’s off to a good start.